Philly DA Promises Justice: Settles For Uniformity
October 21, 2016 (Fault Lines) — Kempis Songster was fifteen years old when he learned that he would be spending the rest of his life in prison. Songster, a runaway who had attended a school for gifted and talented students, found himself running drugs for a Jamaican gang. He stabbed and kill ed another teenager, Anjo Pryce. He was sentenced to life without parole.
Back then, in 1987, it was easy to keep a child in jail for life. All the prosecutor really had to do was put death on the table, and then offer life without parole as an escape route. Bingo bango bongo, and all without the inconvenience of a trial or putting the State’s evidence to the test.
But some of the more liberal members of the Supreme Court appear to have had a problem with this, first eliminating the death penalty for juveniles, then getting rid of life without parole for non-murders and all but the most egregious murders, and finally making all these rulings retroactive in 2016.
Of course, some of the more punitively-minded members of the court were outraged by this. In Miller v. Alabama, Justice Alito pointed out the depravity of the children charged and the Court’s defiance of legislature’s around the country:
But no one should be confused by the particulars of the two cases before us. The category of murderers that the Court delicately calls “children” (murderers under the age of 18) consists overwhelmingly of young men who are fast approaching the legal age of adulthood. Evan Miller and Kuntrell Jackson are anomalies; much more typical are murderers like Donald Roper, who committed a brutal thrill-killing just nine months shy of his 18th birthday.
So what did this mean for Kempis Songster, now graying and described by prison officials as someone who can be rehabilitated? Well, a federal judge had ordered that he needed to be resentenced in 2012. But prosecutors appealed the decision, and then, when more unfavorable Supreme Court precedent came out, agreed to sentence him within a permissible constitutional range.
Of course, Songster wasn’t the only former juvenile lifer. So what is a District Attorney supposed to do with all this sentencing backwash? With these hundreds of prior victories now crawling their way back up the justice system’s throat? In theory, you could save a vast amount of time and state resources by simply agreeing to give juveniles parolable sentences, allowing a specialized body to determine their fitness to live in the outside world. Or you could specially seek out the most serious cases and get ready to put on the evidence to keep those juveniles in prison for life.
Fixing the maximum sentence at life permits the Parole Board to deny parole, effectively working to imprison the defendant for the duration of his life. As long as the Parole Board has the authority to refuse to grant parole, life without parole remains a possibility regardless of the individual’s peculiar situation. If the sentencing court finds that the defendant is not corruptible and not incorrigible, it must impose a maximum sentence less than life to reflect that finding. It can not avoid determining whether the defendant is irreparably corrupt and permanently incorrigible.
This is a strange decision in light of the public statement the District Attorney’s Office made when Montgomery v. Lousiana came down, promising to individually review each case to see if a lesser sentence made sense. Almost as though the cost of justice wasn’t worth the candle.
And Judge Savage, whose 4-year-old order still molders in the file unheeded, is getting tired of it:
“Here’s the problem that I have,” Savage told Assistant District Attorney Susan Affronti on Monday. “If you’re saying you have all these offers out, it seems you’re treating all of these folks the same way – 35 years to life. I don’t get that. That to me appears to show a lack of due diligence, of looking at each case individually. I understand you want to do this for policy reasons. Maybe because it looks good.”
Now, of course, the DA’s office offered up the traditional shield for prosecutors worried about the political consequences of mercy—they argued that the victims would not accept anything less than 35 to life.
Unfortunately, there was a victim’s family member in the audience, “Every person that has lost someone does not feel that way,” she said. The father of Anjo Pryce, she noted, was quoted as saying the opposite, that he considered the two defendants, Songster and Brome, “as innocent as Anjo.” Prosecutors don’t typically quote merciful victims.
The good news for Songster is that he likely will get that contested hearing now. A hearing where he will get to show how he has improved himself over the course of his 29 years in prison. Sure, he might get a life sentence. But he might also be released.
Somewhere in the midst of all this talk about long sentences, something vital is lost. The person you punish when you put a fifteen-year-old in prison is not the same person who is waiting there for you thirty years later. At a certain point, you’re exacting vengeance well beyond the bounds of anyone’s satisfaction. The sentence felt good when it was imposed, and now it can be regretted at leisure.
The possibility of parole isn’t some liberal conspiracy to protect people from the consequences of their actions. It’s the simple hope that people get better. As the true believers say, everyone is better than the worst thing they’ve ever done.